Accreditors Keep Questioning the Need for Stronger Regulations. Here’s Why They Are Needed.

Blog Post
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Feb. 27, 2024

Some colleges, despite holding full accreditation, have delivered a subpar education to students, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in forgiven loans — at taxpayers’ expense.

In an attempt to protect students and public money, the Department of Education (ED) is enhancing rules that govern accreditors, the supposed watchdogs of quality in higher education. Changes the department has proposed are going through a negotiated rulemaking process, one that is legally required when ED adjusts regulations that affect Title IV federal financial aid. Negotiations start back up again for a final time on March 4.

Under ED’s proposal, accreditors would have to set minimum, measurable quality standards — like a minimum graduation rate — that colleges and universities would need to meet.

Colleges would also have less time they could be out of compliance with their accreditors' rules, and the agencies themselves would need to improve how they handle complaints from students and staff about institutions in their purview. These changes should help protect students from enrolling in schools offering an inferior education.

However, negotiators representing accreditors and institutions have condemned many of ED’s proposed accreditation changes, as well as additions suggested by students and advocacy organizations. A consistent refrain has been versions of “why does ED think this change is necessary, what problem are we trying to solve?” These comments suggest accreditors and institutional representatives do not believe the flawed accreditation system requires fixing.

There are, unfortunately, too many examples of accreditor shortcomings to delve into all of them. But as the proposals aim to prevent repetitions of the most egregious accreditation failures, it's worthwhile to examine a couple of illustrative examples.

Consider the case of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, known as WASC, and its laissez-faire oversight of the for-profit Ashford University, now defunct.

Ashford, an online institution, for years came under an avalanche of complaints that it misled prospective students about its costs and outcomes. It lost a lawsuit accusing it of such misrepresentations, and in 2022 a California court fined the university and its former parent company, Zovio, $22 million.

By that point, the institution had rebranded as the University of Arizona Global Campus, or UAGC, which the University of Arizona formally acquired last year, despite heavy criticism from the public institution’s faculty.

During the Ashford era, WASC did little to monitor the university’s recruiting and admissions practices, even as allegations against them piled up. The lawsuit against Ashford came in 2017, but WASC still renewed the institution’s accreditation in 2019. WASC did note at the time it had “longstanding concerns” with Ashford’s anemic student outcomes, which could put it out of compliance with its standards.

Yet WASC seemed to blindly trust that Ashford was making promised improvements, an Education Department report found a few years later.

Ashford told WASC for its accreditation renewal that it hired new staff to run recruitment efforts and that it created a secret shopper-style program to weed out potential problems with them.

But how WASC verified those changes was unclear, Education Department staff wrote in the report, issued in 2023.

“It is concerning to the Department that UAGC continued to have serious issues with its recruitment and admissions practices at least through the agency's current review period, yet the agency did not identify these problems at the school,” staff wrote in the report.

Another accreditor, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, or ACCSC, also tried to skirt responsibility when it came to a set of institutions it supervised, ones affiliated with the predatory operator the Center For Excellence in Higher Education, CEHE.

ACCSC continued to greenlight accreditation for years at these colleges, which included Independence University and Stevens-Henager College, despite massive evidence of specious practices and shoddy outcomes. Only in 2021 did ACCSC pull their accreditation, after a Colorado judge ruled CEHE had indeed deceived students. CEHE colleges shut down that year.

But in 2022, the head of ACCSC downplayed its role in the meltdown. He wrote in a letter to an Education Department official that the accusation of lackadaisical oversight was “unsupported by even a scintilla of the evidence.” The letter recently came to light in a public records request by The Century Foundation.

ACCSC essentially faced no consequences for disregarding ongoing abuses. And it’s part of a pattern of accrediting bodies escaping punishment, even as the colleges they oversee fail.

It’s students who ultimately suffer in the fallout.

Taxpayers also end up footing the bill for poorly performing colleges that accreditors indiscriminately endorse. In 2023 alone, the Biden administration forgave at least $239 million in loans from students who attended one of these colleges, including Ashford, CEHE institution CollegeAmerica, and the for-profit University of Phoenix.

Given these failings, it’s puzzling that accreditor and institutional negotiators seem to be insinuating that ED is trying to solve fictitious problems. The accreditation proposals on the table represent a crucial stride toward averting future crises, and most importantly, will help safeguard students, who just want a quality education and career prospects.

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Higher Education Accountability & Consumer Protection